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BVLOS drone operations in the Netherlands with KPN and TEOCO

18.04.2023

KPN and TEOCO have partnered to implement BVLOS operations across the Netherlands and the North Sea. We’ve recently gotten the chance to sit down with Thomas Neubauer, the Vice President of Business Development and Innovations at TEOCO, and Han De Glint, the Innovation Manager at KPN, during Amsterdam Drone Week. 

Han explained to us that his role as Innovation manager and business developer is to combine the challenges society is currently facing with modern technological developments. KPN has also been a major player historically, which is why the organisation has already been working with drones for years and even has a dedicated drone services department for the Netherlands.

Thomas joined Han during the interview as he is also responsible for the solution called AirborneRF, a software bridging the gap between the drone and telecommunications industries for multiple MNOs, including KPN. He also serves on the board of directors at the Global UTM Association (GUTMA), a non-profit organisation dedicated to enabling the safe integration of drones into airspaces. In addition to his participation in the organisations above, he is also leading the work of the Aerial Connectivity Joint Activity (ACJA), which is leading the work on establishing interfaces between the telecommunications industry and the aviation industry. 

A recent case study utilising connectivity data in the Netherlands

TEOCO and KPN released a recent case study on the increasing demand for Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and how they developed a platform to support airborne operations. The platform shares data across multiple domains, such as aviation, telecom, business and government, to enable critical communication services for UAVs. The primary goal is establishing safe flight corridors for UAVs operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) by utilising TEOCO's AirborneRF solution and KPN's live real-time network updates. 

The platform connects cellular networks with aviation systems like Air Traffic Management (ATM), Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) and Flight Information Management System (FIMS).

The KPN UAV platform provides live network data for operational support, including command and control and sharing of video and data assets, in addition to meeting appropriate bandwidth requirements for real-time data streaming. This platform will enable safe and reliable UAV flight paths by avoiding heavily populated areas and adjusting flight corridors in near real-time based on environmental changes. The case study also highlights the ANWB Medical Drone Proof of Concept, which explores using UAVs to transport medical supplies and equipment to remote locations, using KPN's communication links for secure and reliable data connectivity.

Han explained that the goal of this partnership between TEOCO, Dutch ANSP LVNL, drone operator ANWB and KPN is to form a joint cooperation to build a network and a connectivity infrastructure provider with three primary disciplines to bring the ecosystem further. 

Building digital infrastructures for drones

Han’s goal at KPN is to make drone flights operational while simultaneously discovering what barriers exist and how current industry solutions can solve these challenges or be adapted. Some of the challenges he mentioned included how to control drones remotely and the challenges that come with that, or the SORA procedure, which requires drone operators to predict the expected network coverage from the mobile network operator (MNO).

KPM can provide a good digital infrastructure in terms of volume, but they needed the API from TEOCO to make it operational. So, at the moment, if a drone operator wants to fly, they can use this API to predict the coverage in the air and use that information for the SORA procedure to make sure that the connectivity for the required payload data is available.

His message to the industry is that the current operational capability from the side of MNOs is already there and ready for drone operators in the Netherlands who want to begin using this service for their airborne operations.

Enabling sophisticated BVLOS flight approval requests

Thomas Neubauer added to these points from Han by explaining how challenging the implementation of any sophisticated BVLOS operations is regarding flight approval requests. This involves providing evidence on where they have connectivity and how to access this data because, historically, telecommunications organisations didn’t have many touch points to understand or retrieve this data. 

That’s exactly the problem KPN has been solving with AirborneRF since they began working together in 2019 when they first began exploring the potential of retrieving complex connectivity data. Operationally, this software can be used by early adopters in an automated manner for drone operations, which means they’ve moved this process outside of the theoretical realm and into an everyday reality for users. 

One of these uses is in a drone corridor established along the North Sea, where the API is being implemented to test theoretical data with practical applications.

How standardisation can help empower global drone operations

Han also pointed out that standardisation isn’t something that’s seen everywhere and is often taken for granted by MNO users when they move into other networks while using the roaming functionality of their plans to call back home from a foreign country. This standardisation is something that telecommunications companies like TEOCO have worked hard to achieve, which is why KPN decided to partner with them over others in the ecosystem.

One aspect of standardisation that’s lost, however, explained Han, is where aviation standards come into play. Still, it’s important to bring these two types of standardisation together for global drone operation functionality to be possible. There must be an acceptable means to provide data to harmonise these global standardisation efforts in practice, not just in test environments. 

As expected, TEOCO and KPN have done that through a global initiative from Australia, Asia Pacific, Europe and North America to actually begin to harmonise these interfaces between the telecommunications industry and the aviation industry. Uncrewed traffic management (UTM) providers like LVNL and others can now access that data alongside drone operators and regulators if needed.

Next steps: BVLOS operations at scale

The next step in the process is implementing BVLOS operations at scale and enabling one drone operator to operate multiple drones at the same time. Currently, this isn’t supported in the industry.

However, KPN is heavily involved in ANWB, a medical transport organisation, to begin the testing and implementation process. Other use cases are also possible, like for visual inspection use cases and ground infrastructure like trains or mobile towers, which all require BVLOS operations. Due to the high demand for these drone operations to become possible, some are already seeing helicopters being replaced by drones for more environmentally friendly inspections with drones. 

For this to become a reality, all moving parts need to be stitched together, and providing data from telecommunications is one of the pillars to enable these types of operations. Because, without connectivity, BVLOS simply isn’t possible. 

About Thomas Neubauer

Thomas Neubauer is the Vice President of Innovations at TEOCO, where he leads the AirborneRF project, a software solution that provides crucial data on cellular connectivity and ground risk for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights. The project delivers real-time data between UTM systems and mobile network operators (MNOs) to assess the quality of connectivity for a sufficient C2 link.

Neubauer is also the CEO and Co-Founder of Dimetor, Board Member of the Global UTM Association (GUTMA), and Member of startup300 AG. He has held various positions in the telecommunications and aviation industries, including Managing Director at Symena, Co-Founder of SchoolUpdate, and Chief Strategy Officer at AIRCOM International. Neubauer has an extensive background in academia, serving as an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Telecommunications, Technical University Vienna.

About Han de Glint

Han de Glint is an experienced manager who has specialised in driving innovations and new initiatives within the telecom industry. With over ten years of experience in product, project, and management roles, de Glint has the ability to translate business objectives into programmes, projects and product strategies. He is skilled in team building, creating momentum, and effectively communicating the why, what, and how to all relevant stakeholders.

Currently, de Glint serves as an Innovation Manager at KPN, where he is responsible for building growth and innovation strategies in the B2B domain for 5G, IoT, Data and Value-added Services. He has also held positions as Commercial Product Manager for both IoT networks and the mobile portfolio at KPN.

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